Best nonfiction I read in 2019

In 2019, I have craved knowledge with more than my usual fervor. I still read a bit of fiction, but it was not the memorable, moving year in novels and short stories that it has typically been.

As a happy consequence, 2019 was a banner year for outstanding nonfiction.* I am excited to share my favorites with you.

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race

1. Self-Portrait in Black and White, Thomas Chatterton Williams

Thomas Chatterton Williams writes about the personal and public conundrum of racial identity with stunning clarity and beauty. (It didn’t have to be so beautifully written, but it was!) This was easily, handily, remarkably the most thought-provoking book I’ve read all year. I want to talk about it with everyone I meet. Even if you disagree with his conclusions, these are ideas worth pondering as race-obsessed Americans. Many thanks to Wei, who eagerly pressed a copy into my hands. I’d like to do the same for others. (Get a copy)

The Little Virtues

2. The Little Virtues, Natalia Ginzburg

Human relationships have to be rediscovered every day. We have to remember constantly that every kind of meeting with our neighbor is a human action and so it is always evil or good, true or deceitful, a kindness or a sin.

Gorgeously written and wise. The moving titular essay is what drew me to it, but the rest of the collection is stirring and imaginative. I’m becoming a big fan of WWII-era Italian writers, apparently. (Get a copy)

The Braindead Megaphone

3. The Braindead Megaphone, George Saunders

The best stories proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse that narrative has when revised extensively; they are complex and baffling and ambiguous; they tend to make us slower to act, rather than quicker. They make us more humble, cause us to empathize with people we don’t know, because they help us imagine these people, and when we imagine them—if the storytelling is good enough—we imagine them as being, essentially, like us. If the story is poor, or has an agenda, if it comes out of a paucity of imagination or is rushed, we imagine those other people as essentially unlike us: unknowable, inscrutable, incontrovertible. — “The Braindead Megaphone”

Worth reading for the title essay alone, in all of its chilling timeliness and prescience (written circa 2003, describes the media hell of 2019 perfectly), but everything in here is a delight. (Get a copy)

What If This Were Enough?

4. What If This Were Enough?, Heather Havrilesky

Living simply today takes work. It takes work to overcome the noise that has accumulated in our heads, growing louder and more pervasive since we were young. It takes work to overcome the illusion that we will arrive at some end point where we will be better—more successful, adored, satisfied, relaxed, rich. It takes hard work to say, ‘This is how I am,’ in a calm voice, without anxiously addressing how you should be. It takes work to shift your focus from the smudges on the window to the view outside. It requires conscious effort not to waste your life swimming furiously against the tide, toward some imaginary future that will never make you happy anyway. — “The Miracle of the Mundane”

Fresh, insightful, funny: This book stands boldly against so much of the greed and distraction and soul-crushing malaise of modern life. I wanted this to be twice as long. I do not often finish an essay collection and feel sad that it’s over, but Havrilesky is a rare oracle for our time. Warmly recommended. (Get a copy)

The Red Parts

5. The Red Parts, Maggie Nelson

I know what I want is impossible. If I can make my language flat enough, exact enough, if I can rinse each sentence clean enough, like washing a stone over and over again in river water, if I can find the right perch or crevice from which to record everything, if I can give myself enough white space, maybe I could do it. I could tell you this story while walking out of this story. I could—it all could—just disappear.

Harrowing, beautifully written account of personal and familial trauma. Approached with a rare clarity of mind and forcefulness. I am silenced and in awe. (Get a copy)

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

6. The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

Lukianoff and Haidt present a gripping (and often disheartening) look at the intolerant intellectual environment that characterizes so many American universities today and explore its cultural causes. I appreciate that they didn’t just stop with diagnosis but concluded with practical steps that parents, schools, and university administrators can take to stem the epidemic of youth depression/anxiety and create environments that encourage freedom of thought. (Get a copy)

He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art

7. He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman

Beautiful, clear; a quick meditation on how poets reckon with their chief obsessions of death, faith, and art. Christian Wiman has a graceful humility and deep-seated wisdom that seem rare among many of his compatriots. (Get a copy)

Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic

8. Dreamland, Sam Quinones

Gripping. Relayed in short, episodic little chapters, this book presents a well-researched and heart-rending account of how the opiate epidemic started in America. There are so many different players (Mexican farm boys, disreputable doctors, greedy pharmaceutical execs, sad white kids, devastated parents, law enforcement, etc.), and Sam Quinones juggles them all with ease and skill. (Get a copy)

Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son

9. Blood Horses, John Jeremiah Sullivan

Beautifully written, especially the horse bits. I do wish this had been either a book exclusively about horses or exclusively about his father, instead of both. But John Jeremiah Sullivan is such a delightful stylist, with a particular brand of confidential levity that I enjoy. (Get a copy)

My Private Property

10. My Private Property, Mary Ruefle

Terrifically fun and experimental little essays. Mary Ruefle, with levity and feeling, delivers just the kind of thoughtful jolt that I love in an essay collection. (Get a copy)

Honorable mentions

  1. Educated, Tara Westover
  2. Seculosity, David Zahl
  3. Because Internet, Gretchen McCulloch
  4. Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction, Joshua Cohen
  5. Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder
  6. The Book of Delights, Ross Gay
  7. 300 Arguments, Sarah Manguso
  8. The Gardener’s Essential Gertrude Jekyll
  9. When You Are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris
  10. The Story of the Human Body, Daniel E. Lieberman
  11. Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss
  12. Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport
  13. Dancing at the Edge of the World, Ursula K. Le Guin
  14. Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel
  15. A World Lit Only By Fire, William Manchester
  16. Never Home Alone, Rob Dunn

*Because of the necessarily niche audience, I have not included in this roundup the 40 or so books I read about pregnancy, birth, and babies. Will write a separate post sharing my favorites. Later.

Best fiction I read in 2019

Far and away, I read a lot of incredible nonfiction in 2019. The stories and novels did not hold my attention as much this year, which I could blame on the baby, perhaps. Postpartum, I was so hungry for information (even non-baby-related information) that I was not able to focus much on stories. That said, these were the 10 best works of fiction I read this year.

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1. History, Elsa Morante

I’m perpetually interested in the favorite authors of my favorite authors. Elena Ferrante repeatedly cites Elsa Morante as one of her chief influences, so one of my reading goals of 2019 was to find and read a Morante novel. Her work is not widely translated in English, and many of her novels that were translated are out of print. I asked our lovely local bookstore to order me a copy of History, Morante’s sprawling novel about a Jewish woman on the outskirts of Rome during and after World War II.

History traces the dark and darkly humorous life story of Ida Mancuso, a widowed teacher who discovers that she’s Jewish. After a young German soldier rapes and impregnates her, she gives birth to an unusual and remarkable little boy — whose survival becomes Ida’s passion.

It is absolutely unreal, as a novel, unlike any other historical fiction I’ve ever encountered. Morante writes with force and tireless energy, and her characters are everlasting types, simultaneously and paradoxically embodying both the universal and specific beauty of the human condition. Would rave about it all day long if you let me. (Get a copy)

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2. Selected Stories, Nadine Gordimer

Marvelously composed, startling short stories. I took my sweet time with this collection; Gordimer’s incisive, insightful prose invites such a slow, pleasurable reading. Deep and far-ranging, this collection was the perfect introduction to her brilliant narrative mind. (Get a copy)

Across the Bridge

3. Across the Bridge, Mavis Gallant

In the bleak streets of Montréal, we find Mavis Gallant and her remarkable characters. Beautiful, strange, complex, matchless. (Get a copy)

The Emigrants

4. The Emigrants, W.G. Sebald

Memory, he added in a postscript, often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one’s head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.

I read a good deal of this aloud to my newborn son while nursing; I dare say the strangely plain and strangely moving paragraphs soothed us both. (Get a copy)

Honored Guest

5. Honored Guest, Joy Williams

Death, dogs, and dreams! What’s not to love? (Get a copy)

Image result for escapes joy williams

6. Escapes, Joy Williams

Admittedly, I’m not sure I can distinguish between this one and Honored Guest, but if I read Joy Williams in any given year, she will definitely be in my top 10. (Get a copy)

Vertigo

7. Vertigo, W.G. Sebald

Lovely, and unlike anything else (except other Sebald). I liked it perhaps a bit less than his other novels, but it was still beautiful and thought-provoking. Made me want to go walk all day through an old European city. (Get a copy)

The House of the Spirits

8. The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende

Allende has such an expansive imagination, and that is what primarily makes this novel sing. I followed along happily (with a few small narrative reservations) as she spun this complicated family history in Chile. The characters are memorably complex and unusual, which is always a favorite combination of traits. I did not love the blips of first-person narration from Esteban Trueba, cutting into the majority third-person omniscient narrator. Even though the end makes that choice a bit more sensible, it was distracting to me. Only a small complaint. (Get a copy)

Two Lives and a Dream

9. Two Lives and a Dream, Marguerite Yourcenar

Not my favorite Yourcenar (can anything compare to Memoirs of Hadrian?), but it is still an outstanding set of three little novels, because she is a genius. Her particular gift for inhabiting the psyches of historical figures is preserved here with a straightforward sense of joy and clarity. (Get a copy)

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

10. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong

I am writing because they told me to never start a sentence with because. But I wasn’t trying to make a sentence—I was trying to break free. Because freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.

So many beautiful passages and lines, as to be expected! But it is a rather exhausting reading experience. I wanted a break from all the lushness and metaphor, just a bit of reprieve! I always want to tell poets who write longer fiction, “It’s OK: Every sentence does not have to be a poem. Sometimes it is good to have plain, hardworking sentences.” Even still, it is fun to dive in with this, especially if you can treat it like a very long prose poem, which I was admittedly unable to do. (Get a copy)

Up next: Best nonfiction I read in 2019.

I will appeal to this

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I love fall in our neighborhood.

In my youth, I read the Bible every day. I was particularly fanatical about it in my early teens, pushing myself deeper into study and memorization. I wanted to know more about the Bible than anyone else, as far as it was within my (overinflated sense of) power. I wrote about scripture every morning, memorized the book of Ephesians and much of 1 Corinthians 15, and ultimately had read through the whole Bible three times by the time I turned 18.

I mention this not to brag but to confess. This obsession with the Bible shape-shifted into a dark, unhealthy thing in my young life. My fanaticism broke something in me. The Book was the method through which, I believed, God would grant me favor and a better standing in the heavenly brackets. (Clearly, I was not absorbing some crucial elements of the good news from those books at the end, the ones with the red parts.) And yet this did not happen. All of this intense Bible reading did not improve my character. I was still as horrible as I’d always been, but now, I was self-righteous about it. Worn out from the posturing and performance, by the time I’d graduated college, I was ready to walk away from the faith of my youth for good.

As it happens, I didn’t walk away, which is another story entirely, but I did stop reading the Bible. My reconfiguration of faith made reading the Bible — an act that was once so vital, so critical to my daily functioning — difficult, even distasteful. For the past eight years, I haven’t been able to read the Bible on a regular basis, as much as I’ve tried. I bought new translations, handsomely bound pocket editions, concordances, gigantic ones with commentary. I told myself I’d start memorizing scripture again; I’d read through books during Lent; we’d study the Bible together before dinner. None of it appealed to me (and none of it worked or lasted). It’s not that I wasn’t reading; I was still reading 100 or more books a year. But none of them were the Bible.

I’m still unsure how to fully explain this lapse in Bible reading, but what I do know is that this eight-year break has been restorative. This is a weird thing to say, and my inner evangelical recoils with shame. (To admit such a thing — that not reading the Bible has seemed good for me — verges on serious blasphemy in the circles of my youth.) But it has been. I have been able to enjoy scripture with some distance from it, hearing it every Sunday at church, but I have not buried myself in it; I have not approximated that personal, daily closeness that I once had.

Still, these many years later, I have missed that fervent reader I once knew. Over the past year, I have felt I’m in a healthier, safer place (thanks to the grace of our church, chipping away at my grotesque heart for nearly a decade now), and I have wondered how I could start reading the Bible again. What would it take?

Having a baby, apparently, was what it took. For the past month, in the early hours of the morning, I have read the Bible while nursing Moses. I read it on my phone, needing a free hand to baby-wrangle, which is a new (and not entirely awesome) experience for me. (I’m using the ESV app, which is super-glitchy and full of glaring UX flaws, but it has one of the least gross text interfaces I found.) But it has been working. I have been, to my outrageous surprise, sticking with it.

Leading thoughts thus far? It’s good to be back. And it was right to be away.

I have realized that the Book is still so much with me (and always has been). Even though I clearly didn’t learn much and did not become a better person, all of those years spent reading the Bible shaped my brain and memory. I can still recall scripture easily and with joy. My purity of heart remains Level: Garbage Dump/100% Unrepentant Sinner, but I can remember a weird quantity of the early prophets and the Pauline epistles.

And yet there is still much that surprises me. This is the dual-sided nature of returning to the Bible: I remember so much, and I remember so little.

Specifically, while nursing Moses at 4 in the morning, I was floored by this exchange from Psalm 77, which struck me as just the thing.

I consider the days of old,
the years long ago.
I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;
let me meditate in my heart.”
Then my spirit made a diligent search:
“Will the Lord spurn forever,
and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”

I’d forgotten about how delightful that experience is, when reading scripture, when you stumble on just the thing — the small word, the errant phrase that is precisely what you needed. This is the pleasure of such a vast, beautiful Book: It lives alongside you.

I read this and actually said aloud, astonished, “Has God forgotten to be gracious?” Moses paused and looked up at me and grinned.

In all of these long years away, I had forgotten many things. The remembering has brought a rush of pleasure and contemplation. Returning, now, has felt like the right thing, considering the days of old, the years long ago.

. . .

It’s super-lame when parents say, “This is such a fun age,” but good grief, this IS such a fun age! Moses is five months old now and narrowly holding onto his title as World’s Best Baby. (Woke up at 3:30 in the morning chirping like a pterodactyl, not sleepy at all! Sleep is silly!)

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Best fiction I read in 2018

Transcendent short story collections and novels by non-Americans led the way for me in 2018.

In Transit

1: In Transit, Mavis Gallant

Unreal. I found myself utterly enamored with these gorgeously rendered stories. Each story stands alone, wholly independent from its predecessors, and Mavis Gallant manages this effortless style, creating characters that are at once entirely like us and fully alien. I’m ashamed that this was the first time I had read her, and I’m now committed to consuming everything else she published. (Amazon)

Ninety-Nine Stories of God

2: Ninety-Nine Stories of God, Joy Williams

The brilliant, incandescent, strange, and illuminating Joy Williams tries her hand at microfiction, and the results are perfectly odd and wonderfully thought-provoking. (If you love Lydia Davis, as I do, you’ll love this collection, which can be read in a few hours.) It is almost not fiction; it is so close to prose poetry that these tiny stories demand several readings.

(Yes, the cover has four German shepherds on it; no, that’s not the only reason I loved it.) (Amazon)

A Heart So White

3: A Heart So White, Javier Marías

Dreamy and beautiful in all the right ways. A Heart So White is an exploration of memory and all the secrets we try to keep from those closest to us. Marías has a delightful, rambling, Proustian style, which I imagine the translator took pains to preserve (as he worked with Marías to finalize this), and although it sometimes makes the mind wander, it’s a deep pleasure all the way through. Looking forward to reading more from him. (Amazon)

Thérèse Desqueyroux

4: Thérèse Desqueyroux, François Mauriac

I felt totally astonished by this novel. Thérèse is such a voracious antihero, an absolute treasure to encounter on the page. I promise you haven’t met anyone else quite like her. (Amazon)

Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings

 

5: Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, Jorge Luis Borges

There is some nonfiction in here, but it’s the stories that really stick with you. This collection made me realize, perhaps more than this other work, that Borges really was one of a kind. His intellect is astounding; his passion for history, literature, philosophy, metaphysics is boundless. I do not think I am intelligent enough to have grasped everything here, but I loved the experience, from start to finish. (Amazon)

Spring Snow

6: Spring Snow, Yukio Mishima

I was caught completely off-guard by the beauty of this novel, tracking Japan at the turn of the century, when Japanese tradition is breached by Western influences. I had read Mishima before, but I didn’t know he could be like this. It’s a lovely, fluid translation from Michael Gallagher, which often seems so hard to achieve when Japanese migrates to English, but this translation preserves so much stylistic facility and power.

The fraught friendship (laced with some desire) between Honda and Kiyoaki, and the latter’s fateful passion for Satoko, are deeply memorable, as well as the wealth of visual images and metaphor that strike the mind so powerfully. Overwhelmed by this, in a thoroughly pleasing way, and I finished it quite excited to complete the rest of the Sea of Fertility tetralogy. (Amazon)

Midnight's Children

7: Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

I read this novel for the second time this year, for my book club, and it was thoroughly delightful and mesmerizing to encounter again. Rushdie handles the madness of this narrative with ease. It’s also just a lot of fun, which I don’t think gets mentioned enough when this hefty novel is discussed. (Amazon)

Collected Stories

8: Collected Stories of William Faulkner

So many stories! So many finely spun narratives from one of the very best America ever had. (Amazon)

Florida

9: Florida, Lauren Groff

Pervasively ominous, beautifully written stories that deal with snakes and storms and (often) the travails of motherhood and marriage. I harbor no fondness for Florida, and this collection underscores much of what I dislike and distrust about the state, but the swampy oppressiveness of the land contributes to the magic of this collection. (Amazon)

King, Queen, Knave

10: King, Queen, Knave, Vladimir Nabokov

I rely on a yearly dose of Nabokov for a stylistic pick-me-up, a requisite lyrical jolt. This novel is particularly fun and tightly focused. It is neither ambitious nor serious, and I think this is why I enjoyed it so much. (Amazon)

Honorable mentions

  1. Near to the Wild Heart, Clarice Lispector
  2. The Night in Question, Tobias Wolff
  3. The Church of Solitude, Grazia Deledda
  4. The Perfect Nanny, Leïla Slimani
  5. The Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen
  6. Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
  7. White People, Allan Gurganus

Previously: The best poetry and the best nonfiction I read in 2018.

Best nonfiction I read in 2018

2018 was a banner year in nonfiction for me. I read so much great stuff that it was difficult to choose. Here are my top 10 favorites from the year, along with a hefty list of honorable mentions (which are all also worthy of your time and attention).

The Gene: An Intimate History

1: The Gene: An Intimate History, Siddhartha Mukherjee

Siddhartha Mukherjee is one of those infuriating people who happens to be at the top of his (non-literary) professional field and a brilliant writer. I’ve loved everything he’s published (both his other books and his essays, which often appear in the New Yorker), and I devoured this gorgeously written and riveting history of genetics. It’s written for the layperson but constructed with all the force of his analytical, medical mind. I read it ravenously on a plane, flying from here to Minneapolis, and deeply resented anyone trying to speak to me as I finished it. (Amazon)

Plainwater: Essays and Poetry

2: Plainwater: Essays and Poems, Anne Carson

Anne Carson works on me like a drug. I’m always in the mood for her, and I can never get enough. Her free-wheeling mind and her absolute, inviolable independence as a writer and thinker are addictive.

This, like much of her work, is a multifaceted collection, featuring a long poem, short “talks,” travel diaries with various lovers, and meditations, among other things. It does not disappoint. (Amazon)

Known and Strange Things: Essays

3: Known and Strange Things, Teju Cole

I might be a bit in love with Teju Cole now. (It’s OK; Guion knows.) I feel like a fangirl, like I might drive an unreasonable distance just to hear him speak for half an hour?

This is a beautiful, engaging collection of essays, spanning so many subjects—and so many that I am already delighted by: W.G. Sebald, Virginia Woolf, the aforementioned Anne Carson (!), etc. His style and captivating logic worked on me in a powerful way. This is a collection I regret not owning, as I would press it urgently into the hands of everyone I met. (Amazon)

Gravity and Grace

4: Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil

Although I had already encountered most of these essays in an anthology of Weil that I read last year, it was a renewed pleasure to read this free, unfiltered version of her earliest work. Her mind is powerful; you can fall into it like a dark pool. And her way of thinking is one that we need now more than ever. (Amazon)

The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities and Meaning of Table Manners

5: The Rituals of Dinner, Margaret Visser

This book randomly called to me at the library book sale this year, and I’m so glad that it did. I knew nothing about it, but I was intrigued by the title.

Margaret Visser, a professor at the University of Toronto, provides a delightful tour through the history of table manners, from ancient Greece to 20th-century North America. I especially loved her meaningful reflections on culture: how we form it and how it forms us. Her style is meandering, and she seems to find it difficult to focus on one topic, but I liked her vast, wandering approach, and it seems fitting for the subject matter. Recommended for casual history buffs and students of human culture. (Amazon)

Second Nature: A Gardener's Education

6: Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Michael Pollan

Before he became famous for his real-food polemics, Michael Pollan was puttering around in his New England garden.

This book, published in 1993, is a pure delight and total inspiration to a gardener of my ilk (invested in a garden that balances itself with nature, values native plants, eschews foolish hybrids, and strives to eradicate the lawn in all its iterations). His presentation of a gardener’s ethics was also deeply motivating. I hope to return to it again and again in my gardening life, and I recommend it heartily to anyone who enjoys nurturing plants and a small plot of land. (Amazon)

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

7: The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, Masha Gessen

Utterly gripping. Anyone who naively thinks that history is progressive, that we’re all moving forward in an enlightened direction, should spend a little time with this book.

Masha Gessen writes with all the force and the authority of an excellent researcher, journalist, and Russian native. The book is a clear, salient introduction to Russia’s troubled recent history (1980-present), and it sticks with you after you put it down. (Amazon)

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

8: My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, Ari Shavit

In a series of high-profile interviews, interspersed with personal and national history, Ari Shavit tells a story of Israel and all of its victories and failures, challenges and complexities.

It is perhaps impossible to find an objective source on what Israel was and what it has become, but this excellent book comes close. Shavit is uniquely positioned, as the great-grandson of one of the first colonizing Zionists, as a former detention camp guard, as an anti-occupation journalist, to handle this narrative. Perhaps this is the only way to learn about such a vast, seemingly unsolvable conflict: stories handed down from one person to another, arranged loosely around a long, troubled timeline of the Jewish people. (Amazon)

Daybook: The Journal of an Artist

9: Daybook: The Journal of an Artist, Anne Truitt

American sculptor Anne Truitt keeps a loose-limbed diary, including thoughts about her work, inspiration, motherhood, ambition and provision. The result is a readable, motivating record of a driven artist. She was once a nurse and trained as a creative writer, and both of her capacities for generosity and creativity shine through in this lyrical, finely crafted journal. (Amazon)

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

10: Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman

More than 30 years ago, before we could even conceive of a personal internet or carrying powerful computers around in our pockets, Neil Postman made a chilling prediction the state of American discourse and politics in 2018. Donald Trump is so purely a product and consequence of the Age of Television. It is a gripping and somehow affirming read, backing up all that I have felt this year about wanting to get away from TV, Twitter, Instagram, and the rest of it. Although it’s “old,” it reads quickly and is well worth your time. What remains to be seen is whether we can recover from our addiction to entertainment. (Amazon)

Honorable mentions

  1. Autumn, Karl Ove Knausgaard
  2. Spring, Karl Ove Knausgaard
  3. Agua Viva, Clarice Lispector
  4. How to Write an Autobiographical  Novel, Alexander Chee
  5. Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
  6. Reader, Come Home, Maryanne Wolf
  7. Boys Adrift, Leonard Sax
  8. The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton
  9. At Large and at Small, Anne Fadiman
  10. Operating Instructions, Anne Lamott
  11. Men in the Off Hours, Anne Carson
  12. Letters to a Young Novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa
  13. Calypso, David Sedaris
  14. Come as You Are, Emily Nagoski
  15. The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley
  16. And Now We Have Everything, Meaghan O’Connell

Previously: The best poetry I read in 2018. Up next: The best fiction I read in 2018.

Best poetry I read in 2018

I continue to have no idea how to talk about poetry, but here are the collections of poems I liked best in 2018.

Stag's Leap: Poems

1: Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds

Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey

2: Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, Hayden Carruth

Plainwater: Essays and Poetry

3: Plainwater: Essays and Poetry, Anne Carson

New Collected Poems

4: New Collected Poems, Tomas Tranströmer

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude

5: Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Ross Gay

Leaves of Grass

6: Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

Grace Notes: Poems

7: Grace Notes, Rita Dove

Worshipful Company of Fletchers

8: Worshipful Company of Fletchers, James Tate

Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected

9: Passing Through, Stanley Kunitz

Our Andromeda

10: Our Andromeda, Brenda Shaughnessy

Up next: Best nonfiction and fiction that I read in 2018.

Everything that has been excluded

Christmas cards
Christmas cards going out, from years past.

I’m always thinking about reading, but I have been thinking about it in a more targeted way lately, as it pertains to my job as a content strategist/designer.

In Journey Group’s publication on Medium, I decided to make the case for preserving deep reading online: Digital Readers Deserve Better.

. . .

My appetite for fiction waxes and wanes throughout the year. I typically keep a steady diet of 50% fiction/50% nonfiction, but lately, I have found it difficult to concentrate on novels and short stories. I am very slowly working my way through Tolstoy’s first novels — Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth — composed as episodic, unconnected vignettes, and even though I adore him, I am not terribly interested. Nonfiction, however, has been holding my attention with great force.

As I make my top 10 lists of the best things I read in 2018, this preference for nonfiction bears out; I read a ton of excellent nonfiction this year, apparently, and just a handful of excellent fiction. Lists to come soon.

. . .

“The most effective stories are those that resemble ramparts from which one can gaze out at everything that has been excluded.”

— Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia

. . .

With cold nights and cold mornings, I have a passion for lighting candles during this season. I now have candles strewn about in every conceivable living space in our home: kitchen counter, coffee table, bedroom, dining table, etc. It is a small thing, but it makes winter bearable.

Closing side note: If you, like me, are nurturing a passion for candles, I have a recent discovery to share with you: This excellent and very affordable beekeeper in Michigan who makes beautiful 100% pure beeswax candles. I just got my first order of taper candles from him, and I am extremely pleased.

Merry Christmas, all! Hope your season is merry and bright.

Living in the library

the ones that got away: apr.
Stacks at Davis Library, UNC-Chapel Hill (research for my thesis, circa 2009).

Once a week, when we were small, Mom let us loose in the public library for a few hours. These were some of my favorite mornings in my memory of our elementary school years. She brought an enormous canvas tote (it could comfortably fit our three-year-old brother inside of it; the bag was a gift from our father, and he’d had her nickname—Mookie—embroidered on the side with navy blue thread). We were allowed to fill this bag to the brim with books, but we could not overflow the bag. We became strategic about how we packed our selections in the bag, ensuring that each of our carefully chosen titles would make the final cut.

We were set free inside the large, three-story library and told to meet back at a particular spot in a few hours. I went to my typical shelves (young adult fiction, baby name books, dog books, books about Japan); Grace gravitated toward the heavy art books that you couldn’t check out; and Kelsey and Sam were often found playing computer games upstairs. I have no idea what Mom did. (I hope she found a sofa somewhere and took a nap.)

I relished these hours alone, discovering books I had never heard of, pulling them off the shelves just for the joy of holding them in my small hands. The sense of independence—both physical and intellectual—from library mornings formed me deeply. I was simultaneously overwhelmed and motivated by all that I had not read. I felt (and still feel) this driving compulsion to read as much as possible before I die. When I think of this lifelong pursuit, I think of the shelves at the public library of my childhood, stretching before my mind endlessly, full of promise and provocation.

Although we were homeschooled in a strongly evangelical, conservative community, my mother was wisely relaxed about reading. In a time when her peers were throwing fits about Harry Potter or other “worldly,” dangerous books their children might encounter, she was calm about what we found to read. (She knew, as many of her fellow homeschooling moms seem to have forgotten, that censorship would only make the desire for the banned books burn even brighter.) Instead, she let us read whatever we found. She was careful about other things—like TV and movies—and we were not allowed to watch anything on a screen without parental permission (and the answer was usually “no”). But books were an open field.

I asked her once, years later, why she was so relaxed about books with me, in particular. “Are you kidding?” she said. “I didn’t have time to read everything you were reading. You read too much. I trusted that you’d figure out, in the end, what was good and true and what wasn’t.”

7 writers to read now

I am always obsessing over something, and right now, it’s these seven writers. I consider them essential, and now I shall badger you to move them to the top of your reading list.

Image result for clarice lispector

1. Clarice Lispector

Want to feel unsettled and amazed all at once? Look no further than the brilliant (and beautiful) Clarice Lispector, a Ukrainian-Brazilian socialite with a wild mind and incandescent, hypnotic prose. She’s unlike anyone else out there.

Where to start? The Complete Stories and then The Passion According to G.H.

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2. Anne Carson

What must it be like to have a brain as powerful as Anne Carson’s? Anne Carson is a classics professor, poet, translator, and essayist, and she writes some of the smartest, strangest books I’ve ever encountered.

Where to start? Eros the Bittersweet and then Glass, Irony and God and then Autobiography of Red

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3. Joy Williams

There’s nothing quite like a Joy Williams short story: Everything is familiar and foreign all at once. The humans behave in mostly unhuman ways and yet you feel like you know them, like you’ve also felt this strange conglomeration of emotions and desires, like you also have been trapped in a moment like this one. I could read her all day long (and have).

Where to start? The Visiting Privilege and then Escapes

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4. Yukio Mishima

His florid, intense personality (and infamous suicide) garnered him almost as much attention as his writing, but he remains the master of modern Japanese literature. Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy is incredible and moves you seamlessly into another world, wrapped in mystery and expressed with power.

Where to start? Spring Snow and then Confessions of a Mask

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5. Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym of an Italian novelist, and she’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. I re-read My Brilliant Friend while in Ischia last month, and experiencing that story again in a portion of its setting was a magical, transformative experience. Her novels will stick with me for years to come.

Where to start? My Brilliant Friend and then the rest of the Neapolitan novels

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6. Simone Weil

This irritable, beleaguered genius wrote some of the most unusual and lucid modern philosophy on faith, reason, government, and individual agency. Eminently quotable and pleasantly readable, Weil was a woman that her troubled world needed.

Where to start? Simone Weil: An Anthology

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7. Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald gets far less attention than she deserves. She produced these tidy, perfect little novels, masters in form, and did it all quietly while raising a brood of children in England (her literary career began when she was 58!). They’re quick and surprising, delightful from start to finish.

Where to start? The Blue Flower and then Offshore

Who are you reading and loving right now?

How to read in 2018

So many great books.
The screen is an easier choice than the book. (Old photo of a friend’s apartment, circa 2012.)

The internet has ruined deep reading for all of us.

We’ve known this for a while (see: Nicholas Carr, among many others), and yet we keep trying to read books in the real world. I keep trying. As a dedicated reader, I admit that it’s a challenge. Reading requires so much effort at the end of a work day, when I’ve spent eight hours looking at words on a screen.

And still, I believe in the calming, edifying power of the printed word. It is better for our eyes and our brains to read off-screen. We remember more; we think more clearly; we engage with ideas on a deeper level. But it’s so hard to read these days. It’s often so unappealing.

Here are some things that have been working for me lately.

Read these online tips to read offline

(The irony! It is not lost on me.)

  • Prime your brain. Don’t jump straight from your phone or laptop to a novel. It won’t work. The screen will seduce you back to itself. Look at something else for a while: your German shepherd, the turkey buzzards circling over the holler, the pastel horizon, the knob of your front door. Then pick up your book.
  • Keep your phone far away from you. In another room. You cannot leave it at arm’s length on a coffee table or nightstand. You will pick it up and put the book down. Judging people’s curated lives on Instagram is infinitely more appealing to our deadbeat brains than Faulkner. We must remember this.
  • Read as slowly as possible. Our internet-addled brains make us skim text. Online, we’re constantly skating over sentences and barely finishing them. Untrain your digitized brain. Read a sentence as slowly as you can, like you did when you were first learning how to read and sounding out words and thinking about what they meant. (This is especially pleasurable to do with a great stylist, like Nabokov or Cheever. Their sentences stand alone, pure gold on a page.)
  • Read just 20 pages at a time, to see if you can, without interrupting yourself. Then try 20 more. And so on.
  • Also, here’s a freebie: Facebook is evil. It is making you unhappy. And it’s making our country measurably worse. Delete your account as soon as possible. This is the main thing I’m preaching in 2018 (along with the fact that books are still good).

I have been thinking about these things as I begin a new year of reading. I’m reducing my personal goal a bit this year, so I can devote some more time to writing projects, but I have noticed how difficult it has been for me to focus on books. I feel like my reading brain is getting weaker, and it concerns me greatly. Hence, these tips.

Here’s to renewed vigor and to a year that is increasingly spent offline.